The Sacred World Tree (Ceiba)

A young ceiba. The thorns protect the tree from animals, especially the peccary who like the bark. The spikes disappear when the tree matures. The ceiba is the largest tree in the tropical forest, so it’s not surprising that the Maya would use it as a model for the cosmos. The stature of the actual tree with roots deep in the underworld, tall trunk and branches that touched the sky, it well represented the three realms which were inhabited by gods and demons. The ideological version, an imagined replica was known as… Read More

Kakaw (Chocolate)

Kakaw trees can’t tolerate high altitudes or temperatures below 60º F. They need moisture year-round, so during prolonged dry seasons irrigation is necessary. Given these considerations, they were domesticated in the Pacific coastal plains of Guatemala and Chiapas around 1000 B.C., at the height of the Olmec civilization at San Lorenzo. The area around Izapa, a Late Formative site in Chiapas, was a particularly rich source of kakaw (cacao) because it was very hot with volcanic soil.  The variety of cacao grown in the Maya area is called theobroma bicolor—“pataxte” in Mayan…. Read More

Ch’ulel “Soul”

The animating spirit in all things Plumeria, San Ignacio, Cayo, Belize For the Tzotzil Maya, ch’ulel is the inner, individual soul which has thirteen parts and is centered in the heart. This life essence that animates the person is placed in the embryo at conception by ancestral deities and is inherited from the grandfather, not the father, because, after a person dies, the soul remains at the gravesite for the same period of time as the person lived. And once the ch’ulel has been placed in the new grandchild, he or she… Read More

Kenep

A delicious tropical fruit My guide at the Maya site of Cerros, Belize picked up a small unripe fruit that had fallen from a very tall tree. There were dozens, lying all around. “This is kenep,” he explained. “It’s a local name. It ripens in the warm summer months and becomes bright orange—very tasty. Some of them get twice this size. You peel away the shell and suck on the fruit until the flesh is gone, then you spit out the stone. Kids pop ‘em like candy and make necklaces from the seeds…. Read More

Mangrove Trees

Building material and healing remedy After touring Cerros, a Preclassic Maya site in Belize, my guide took me a few miles down the New River to a lake covered in lily pads. The ancients cultivated them in great quantities to freshen ponds and encourage the growth of fish. The pads and stalks were dried to fertilize fields. Significantly, the lily pads played a key role in referencing the beginning of time and annual time cycles. Kings wore representations of lily pads in their headdresses, to associate themselves with aquatic deities. Coming back… Read More

Copal Incense

The sweet-smelling blood of trees Copal (Pom) tree with bamboo growing alongside it The process of making copal incense begins by scraping the bark with a blade. When the sap comes out it’s collected on a piece of bark or corn husk. The resin, which wards off insects from the tree, is thick and sticky and has a white to yellow color. In contact with the air, it becomes hard like a shiny rock, so saliva is applied to keep it malleable. Copal was traded locally as a resin in maize husks,… Read More

The Sacred World Tree (Ceiba and Itzam Yeh)

A young ceiba. The thorns protect the tree from animals, especially the peccary who like the bark. The spikes disappear when the tree matures. The ceiba is the largest tree in the tropical forest, so it’s not surprising that the Maya would use it as a model for the cosmos. The stature of the actual tree with roots deep in the underworld, tall trunk and branches that touched the sky, it well represented the three realms which were inhabited by gods and demons. The ideological version, an imagined replica was known as… Read More

Kakaw (Chocolate)

  Kakaw trees can’t tolerate high altitudes or temperatures below 60º F. They need moisture year-round, so during prolonged dry seasons irrigation is necessary. Given these considerations, they were domesticated in the Pacific coastal plains of Guatemala and Chiapas around 1000 B.C., at the height of the Olmec civilization at San Lorenzo. The area around Izapa, a Late Formative site in Chiapas, was a particularly rich source of kakaw (cacao) because it was very hot with volcanic soil.  The variety of cacao grown in the Maya area is called theobroma bicolor—“pataxte” in… Read More

Ch’ulel “Soul”

Plumeria, San Ignacio, Cayo, Belize For the Tzotzil Maya, ch’ulel is the inner, individual soul which has thirteen parts and is centered in the heart. This life essence that animates the person is placed in the embryo at conception by ancestral deities and is inherited from the grandfather, not the father, because, after a person dies, the soul remains at the gravesite for the same period of time as the person lived. And once the ch’ulel has been placed in the new grandchild, he or she becomes a k’ex “substitute” for the… Read More